I FIRST BECAME AWARE OF BEN MONDER WHILE LISTENING to bassist Marc Johnson’s Right Brain Patrol in 1992. It was Monder’s first major recording session, but he nonetheless clearly distinguished himself from his contemporaries, and even infused the blues with fresh ideas on one track. Throughout the intervening years Monder has been recruited to play on more than 100 albums, worked with such luminaries as Paul Motian, Jack McDuff, Lee Konitz, Kenny Wheeler, and Maria Schneider, and released numerous collaborative albums and four as a leader.
The polytonal and sometimes polyrhythmic compositions on Monder’s 2005 solo venture, Oceana, so thoroughly transcended genre classifications that critics struggled to explain the music while simultaneously extolling it as a work of creative genius. Monder’s 2006 collaboration with pianist Chris Gestrin and drummer Dylan van der Schyff, The Distance, was a slightly less confounding work that explored mostly sparse and atmospheric musical terrain, with peaks of fiery passion jutting through every so often. The following year’s collaboration with master vocalist and live electronics wizard Theo Bleckmann, At Night, found Monder creating sublime soundscapes supporting lyrics that included mystical poems by Sufi poet Rumi and “Norwegian Wood” in addition to originals, with avant-drummer Satoshi Takeishi contributing to five tracks.
Monder’s latest release is an entirely improvised collaboration with tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry that actually dates from 2001. Recorded in a single day, Bloom [Sunnyside] not only illustrates the scope of the guitarist’s conceptual approach and technical capabilities, but also the depth, intensity, and immediacy of his connection with the Muse.
Whether executing uncanny and often impossibly difficult single-note lines, emitting wave upon wave of nearly unfathomable arpeggiated chords, or abandoning tonality for the expressiveness of pure sound, Monder’s playing demonstrates that there are still uncharted musical realms to be discovered for those with the vision and fortitude to do so.
There are quite a few extraordinary guitar sounds on Bloom. What were you playing through when you recorded it?
It was pretty much my standard setup from ten years ago. I played my Ibanez AS- 50 guitar through two amps: my Fender Princeton and the engineer’s Ampeg B-15 Portaflex bass amp, which sounded great with guitar. For effects I had a little Lexicon LXP-1 reverb, a Boss DD-2 delay, a Rat distortion, a Boss CS-3 compressor, and an Ernie Ball volume pedal.
Has your rig changed much since then?
I still use the LXP-1, though I had it upgraded by a guy in California a few years ago, so it sounds much better. I mostly just keep it on the Hall setting and adjust the amount depending on the tune. I also have a Rat modified by Robert Keeley, a Fulltone Deja Vibe, an MXR Carbon Copy analog delay, and the same compressor and volume pedal as before. Sometimes I’ll also use an old Boss OC-2 Octave pedal. I generally play through a Music Man RD-112 on gigs, and for recording I’ll use a ’66 blackface Fender Deluxe or a ’68 silverface Princeton, sometimes recorded in stereo. Occasionally I’ll use the Music Man and the Deluxe in stereo on gigs, which sounds really good.
You’re still playing the AS-50. What is it about that guitar that’s worked for you for so long?
I bought it in 1983 because I liked the way it looked, and because I imagined it would produce a certain sound. When I actually got it, however, it didn’t sound anything like what I’d imagined. But I kept at it and eventually it started sounding the way I wanted. So I don’t know if there’s something going on where you kind of breathe your sound through a guitar and it starts to do what you want it to, but it is really easy to play and it has a nice jazz tone as well as being able to rock out. I can also bend the neck to change pitch, which is something I do fairly often.
You also have a nice acoustic that you play on some pieces.
Yes, a 1936 Martin 018.
One of the most startling aspects of your playing is your right-hand technique. Describe what you are doing both when playing with and without a pick.
In jazz contexts, where I’m switching between single-note lines and chords or comping for myself, I use a hybrid technique that involves a pick and the three remaining fingers. One reason I use a pick is that I have zero chops playing single notes with my fingers, though I’m not really crazy about that sound anyway. I fingerpick all of the solo pieces and most of the more elaborate band pieces, though, because it is easier just to grab arpeggiated chords with my right hand. My technique approaches classical right-hand technique, but I only use my pinky when I want to play five notes simultaneously, and never for playing arpeggios.
What kind of picks do you prefer?
I like the little teardrop-shaped, heavy gauge D’Andrea picks.
Several of your compositions are polyrhythmic. What advice would you give players who would like to learn to play polyrhythmic music?
Learn to tap the polyrhythms out with your fingers. Experiment with the simplest ones first: 5 against 4, 7 against 4, 5 against 3, and so on. Once you can tap them with your fingers it’s a relatively easy jump to playing them on the guitar.
Some of your compositions, such as “Double Sun” on Oceana, employ non-standard tunings. Describe the ways in which you use them.
That piece is in C, with the sixth string tuned down to C and the fifth string tuned down to G, so I’m able to get fifths on the bottom: C, G, D. The idea is the tension between an implied key of C on the bottom and a key of A on the top, as well as the polyrhythms, which are 5 against 3. I only use non-standard tunings to get specific sounds for specific pieces. For example, I’m working on a piece now where the sixth string is tuned down to C# and the first string is tuned down to D, so I get a lot of interesting sounds that I wouldn’t get normally. I use .013-gauge sets with an unwound .020 third string, so I don’t tune strings up because I’m afraid of them breaking. And I almost never improvise with non-standard tunings just because I’m not smart enough to do that.
Much of the improvised music on Bloom sounds composed. Did you discuss it beforehand?
No, we didn’t talk about anything. It was a long day of recording, and I discarded a lot of stuff that didn’t work—but except for one tiny edit on one piece, what you hear are complete performances exactly as they happened. I like to think of improvisation as compositionally as I can, and to have it cohere as much as possible, developing an idea logically over time. Of course it doesn’t always work out that way. I often start playing too many notes, and the ideas aren’t so clearly defined.
Describe what’s going on inside you when you are improvising?
I try not to think too much, and to the extent that I am thinking, I’m trying to edit out excess. I come at it with the idea that this is how I’d like to play, and then let the ideas dictate where they want to go, which is very similar to composing in real time. And, of course, I love playing with people that feed me as many ideas as possible. Also, a great way to get out of my own head if I’m feeling out of ideas is to listen to the other people. For example, I might just listen to the sound of the ride cymbal or the drums generally, because they are not pitch specific, and that will get me out of thinking about harmonic things.
Is there anything that you do to get yourself into the right headspace for improvising?
Not really. I probably should. I used to meditate a lot and whenever I would do that before a gig, I would always play much better. Sometimes it helps if I remind myself of the priorities that I have, such as what I was just talking about as far as playing compositionally and simply. Also, I practice a lot, and the danger of that is I think I have to play all this stuff that I’ve been working on, which is a real trap.
What sorts of things do you practice?
Well, first of all, I don’t practice 16 hours a day as reported in one article [laughs]. That would be ridiculous. Generally my routine is to begin with practicing harmonic things, such as playing through Bach chorales that I’ve adapted for guitar from the piano score. Then I just go into various voice-leading exercises that I’ve devised for myself. One way I’ve developed a lot of the chords I use is through structures built on consistent intervals, and taken through various scales. Taking a four-note chord as a simple example, I’ll start on a given note, then go up a fourth, then a second, and then a fifth, and that’s that structure, which could have a sort of suspended sound. Then, depending on the scale, I could take it up through a harmonic minor or major scale or whatever, and that will give me options based on whatever the relative modes are for that scale. After that I might work on voice leading among different structures, so I’m not just moving things up and down in parallel, to see where those structures can go. And finally, I’ll challenge myself by doing this kind of work through moving harmony rather than diatonically within one key. If you think of all the structures you can devise—from three to six notes—there’s really quite a lot of potential for work there. This isn’t an original concept, but I’ve devised my own approach to it.
The concept may not be original, but what you’ve done with it certainly is. Your influences aren’t at all obvious, and more than a little of what you do appears unprecedented—would you agree?
Although the approach didn’t originate with me, I guess the way I’ve pursued it is original, because I came up with my own ideas and my own ways of following those ideas. I just responded to whatever sort of sound ideal I had in my mind and tried to get there through my own exercises and other ways of working. So yeah, if that ends up sounding original, then great.